A Quick and Dirty Guide to Skiing in Northern California

There's plenty of powder awaiting in the Sierra Nevada this year.
There's plenty of powder awaiting in the Sierra Nevada this year. Heavenly Mountain Resort
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California takes its fair share of heat when it comes to skiing: not enough powder, heavy, moisture-filled Sierra snow, it’s a long drive to get to the slopes from most major cities. Knock it all you want, we say; meanwhile, we’ll be out there carving it up. Skiing in northern California means world-class terrain, props as the birthplace of extreme skiing, and some of the best spring conditions around.

And, after several years of subpar snow, the 2015-2016 season has already proved to be an epic one: In mid-January of 2016, Lake Tahoe has seen more snow than all of the 2014-2015 season combined, with plenty of more snow forecast with the El Niño weather pattern.

When it comes to NorCal skiing and snowboarding, most San Francisco enthusiasts head right to Lake Tahoe. From the Bay Area, it’s about a three-hour drive to the aquamarine alpine lake, which straddles both California and Nevada and is home to 15 downhill resorts.

Lake Tahoe's beauty is so staggering, sometimes you have to take a break from ripping it up to soak it all in.
Lake Tahoe's beauty is so staggering, sometimes you have to take a break from ripping it up to soak it all in. Travis Wise

But there’s a vastly different feel to the areas of Big Blue: The North Shore exudes a more upscale vibe, while the South Shore beckons with a rocking party scene, thanks to the casinos and clubs around the Nevada border. And don't forget about Mammoth Mountain, the aptly named resort that's a bit further away in the town of Mammoth Lakes, but boasts some of the best spring skiing around.

Here, a breakdown of some of RootsRated's favorite spots for skiing in Northern California (many places offer a military discount or free lift tickets, so always ask). A word of warning about a traffic: It can get gnarly heading back into the Bay Area on Sundays, especially after one of those legendary Tahoe powder dumps. Savvy skiers and riders know to leave early or late to avoid teeth-gnashing gridlock on I-80 West. See you on the slopes.

Squaw Valley | Alpine Meadows, North Lake Tahoe

Squaw is beloved for its wide-open runs.
Squaw is beloved for its wide-open runs. Courtesy of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows

Squaw, considered by many in ski circles as the crown jewel of Tahoe, merged with Alpine in 2011, creating the largest single ski area in the continental U.S. with 6,000 acres. In addition, the resorts are nearing completion of a $70 million upgrade to improve all aspects of their combined experience, from nighttime snowshoe dinners to mountain guide programs with The North Face.

Long renowned for steeps and granite cliffs that attract top NorCal skiers, Squaw is recognized as the birthplace of extreme skiing (thanks to the jaw-dropping feats of longtime resident Shane McConkey, who died in a BASE jumping accident in Italy in 2009). But Squaw also beckons the less experienced with mellow beginner and intermediate runs, wide open bowls, and, of course stunning views of Lake Tahoe. On powder days, forget about first tracks unless you’re seriously committed, as competition is fierce, and keep in mind that lifts like KT22, Headwall, and Silverado can get crowded.

Unlike other nearby resorts, Alpine has an “open boundary” policy, meaning that if the area boundary is marked ‘OPEN’, you can ride wherever you like. Head straight for the Summit Six chair, which accesses most of the mountain’s terrain in a matter of minutes. The resorts are connected via backcountry terrain, so experienced skiers and riders can navigate between them without having to hop a shuttle. The resorts also have a combined six terrain parks between them, catering to the freestyle set.

Northstar, North Lake Tahoe

A skier bombs off a cliff on a pow day at Northstar.
A skier bombs off a cliff on a pow day at Northstar. Courtesy of Vail Mountain Resorts

Northstaroffers some of the best snowmaking capabilities in Lake Tahoe, which is good news as California’s drought slogs on. But you’ll pay for it, as the resort (which joined with Heavenly in 2010 under the Vail umbrella) also boasts some of the most expensive lift tickets in Tahoe ($120 for an adult full day pass; $98 for half day).

On Mt. Pluto, warm up with a few lower-mountain runs before heading to the Comstock Chair, which reaches the top in about five minutes and provides access to several short, steep runs, as well as long blues that let you drop in to a number of blacks if you’re feeling up to it. While the backside of the mountain typically has the least-trafficked runs, wait until they’ve had a chance to warm up under the sun to give them a go.

Off the mountain, it’s easy to indulge in the upscale Vail vibe, from the swanky stores at the base to an on-site Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe. But even if you don’t have the funds to stay at the Ritz, don’t miss the surprisingly affordable menu at the hotel’s new, on-site Backyard Bar & BBQ. Head up via the Big Easy chairlift and settle in for humongous portions of pulled pork, baby back ribs, mac and cheese, and collard greens so lip-smackingly delicious you’ll think you’re in the Deep South, not the Sierras. (Prices start around $16, including two sides.)

Kirkwood, South Lake Tahoe

Get ready for plenty of powder this season.
Get ready for plenty of powder this season. Kirkwood

For skiers and riders who love natural terrain, Kirkwood ’s 2,300 acres serve up just about anything you can dream of: gullies, cliffs, rocks, bowls, even a groomer or two. The resort is one of the most remote in Lake Tahoe, with more than 600 inches of snow annually, and because it's off the beaten path, it gets far fewer crowds than other resorts.

Nearly 60 percent of the mountain’s trails are intermediate and advanced, making it a good place to take your skills to the next level. For some knee-buckling terror, check out Jim’s Ridge or the Cirque; on an epic powder day, don’t miss Eagle Bow. For some off-piste action, consider the resort’s “Out of Bounds Private Guide” program, which will offer coaching and access into terrain just outside the boundary and into Thunder Bowl, Avy Bowl, and Reuter Bowl zones. Kirkwood is the only resort in the Tahoe region that offers such an experience.

Homewood, West Lake Tahoe

Homewood is one of Lake Tahoe's hidden gems, with great views and affordable prices.
Homewood is one of Lake Tahoe's hidden gems, with great views and affordable prices. Homewood

Gladed runs, corduroy groomers, powder bowls­, few crowds, unmatched views of Lake Tahoe, and budget-friendly lift tickets (from around $45) all make Homewood , located along the west shore, one of Tahoe’s hidden gems. Book online in advance to score full-day passes for a fraction of what you’ll pay at pricier spots. Plus, if you’re bringing the family, Homewood’s ski school is one of the best in Lake Tahoe (a huge bonus for parents craving some adult-only runs).

Don’t panic when you see the one run facing the parking lot: Homewood’s 2,010 acres include more than 60 trails, with 55 percent of the terrain designated as beginner/intermediate. (One downside: The resort only gets around 450 inches of snow per year, and the resort occasionally shuts down in between storms.) For après, head across the street to the West Shore Café and Inn, which has a superb lakeside patio and free s'mores most evenings, even if you're not a guest.

Mammoth Mountain, Mammoth Lakes, CA

A skier in mid-flight on Mammoth Mountain.
A skier in mid-flight on Mammoth Mountain. Peter Morning/MMSA

Though we have to share Mammoth with SoCal skiers, too, this big-ass mountain lives up to its name, a whopping 3,500 acres that offer plenty of room for everyone, from the hardcore powder hounds to snow bunnies schussing around in bikinis. The 11,000-foot mountain also is the place to be for Cali spring skiing, which can stretch well into summer, depending on snowfall.

On a good powder day, head to Chair 22 for Sunshine Glades, Grizzly, or Shaft, and tear through some of the Sierra’s best tree skiing. For the more advanced, take the Cloud Nine Express chair to Dragon’s Tail and Dragon Alley, which serve up perfect pow, and usually with fewer crowds. Finally, for a beautiful route all the way around the mountain and back down to the base, take the gondola to the top of the Sierra and catch Upper Road Runner to Road Runner to Lower Road Runner. It's a fantastic run, even without Wile E. Coyote in pursuit.

For a more family-friendly vibe and some of the Sierra’s best-kept sidecountry secrets, check out June Mountain, which opened in 2013 and offers 500 acres of beginner and intermediate terrain. To get there, skip the six-hour ride in favor of an hour-long flight. The airport shuttle into town, which is part of Mammoth’s fantastic (and free) system, is synched up with flight schedules, and puts you at the base in only ten minutes.

Boreal

One of the best deals in Tahoe, Boreal boasts lift tickets that cost just $59—which gives you access to the slopes from 9 am-9 pm (if you just want to night ski, that’s only $29). With those kind of prices, plus 75 percent of its terrain designated as beginner/intermediate, it’s an ideal place for newbies to try out skiing or boarding without too much of an investment. And this season, there are two mores dates on the calendar for the resort's Feel Good Fridays—Feb. 5 and March 18—when a lift ticket costs just $25, $5 of which goes to charity.

Another bonus for Bay Area folks: Boreal sits rights off 1-80 and is about a half-hour closer to home, meaning you can easily snag first tracks and beat traffic. It's also a quick drive to Truckee, a charming Western town that makes for a great home base. Check out the comfy digs at the Cedar House Sport Hotel (rooms from about $160; ask about AAA discounts), which caters to the athletic set with a sporty vibe and a hearty European-style breakfast buffet perfect for fueling up for the day's activities.

For additional information:

 Ski Lake Tahoe
Go Tahoe North
Tahoe South

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